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Celebrity Hotel – gossip, scandal and intrigue

03 April 2010

Neil Kirby worked at the Grosvenor House hotel on London's Park Lane for 28 years. In these extracts from his book Celebrity Hotel he recounts his rise from pot washer to general manager, and the vanities, whims and special requests of the guests he encountered, from Pavarotti and his extra large bed to Liberace and his candelabra.

I first began working at the Grosvenor House hotel at the age of 15, washing up in the basement kitchens. We were kept below ground like moles at all times, and no one who worked in the basement area was ever allowed "above stairs". Any of the staff found using guests' entrances or exits were instantly dismissed and we certainly never came into contact with the guests themselves. Not until later, when I began training as a valet in the summer of 1969 was I allowed even a glimpse of the opulence above me.

One day I was in the basement, washing up with another member of staff, when a very smart man walked through the kitchen, dressed immaculately in a white shirt and a navy-blue suit with a crisp white handkerchief in his top pocket. When he had gone, I nudged my friend at the sink.

"Who was that man there?"

"He's the general manager of the hotel."

"That's what I want to be one day."

Suddenly I had a goal in life.

VALET TO THE STARS

I knocked on the door of Robert Wagner's apartment. There was no answer, so I let myself in with the master key to collect some clothes that he wanted laundered. No sooner had I entered than his beautiful wife, actress Natalie Wood, walked out of the bathroom completely naked. I decided not to put in a complaint to the management! She just stood and looked at me, completely unperturbed, and I knew then that I was going to enjoy my promotion.

After working below stairs in the laundry room at the Grosvenor House hotel on Park Lane, I was eventually offered the chance to train as a full-time valet. I worked hard all night making sure that everything was perfect, put on my uniform in the staff locker room, and then walked up the stairs to the hotel lobby for the very first time. It was like changing from a black and white film to colour.

Although money was obviously a great incentive to valets, the service we gave was second to none.

My work also brought me into daily contact with so many fascinating people, each with their individual quirks and foibles. David Cecil, Marquess of Exeter, the former Olympic hurdles champion, for example, had the personalised number plate AAA 1 (Amateur Athletics Association) on his Rolls-Royce. He once had a hip replacement operation and replaced the flying lady Spirit of Ecstasy on the bonnet of his car with a silver-plated piece of his own hip bone.

Lauren Bacall used to stay in film producer Sam Spiegel's apartment. She could be absolutely terrifying. Once, when she was about to depart, she over-packed her suitcase with far too many clothes. My fellow valet, Michael, struggled to close it for her.

"Bloody well get out of the way!" she shouted aggressively at him. Then she pointed at me.

"You! You look like a man. You do it!"

Admittedly I was stronger than Michael and I managed to get the case closed.

"That's it," she growled. "Now get out, the pair of you!" She was one of the toughest women I have ever met in my life. We got out of that apartment like two scalded cats.

PROJECT MANAGEMENT

By a very lucky chance I now had another job and a new title: projects manager. Working on the first floor of the Grosvenor House apartment block, I did not allow enough money in the feasibility study for the kitchen to be refurbished and so the overall budget was too low. I overspent by £50,000 to £60,000 and had to submit another capital expenditure form, which needed to be signed by the bosses. Rocco Forte was not pleased.

"I remember Kirby sitting here gloating that it would be done within the budget," he said at a meeting grimly. I thought I was going to be in real trouble, but he signed it off without another word; otherwise the project would not have been completed.

"I only did it for you," he said that night when we went running together in training for a marathon, "but you deserve a bollocking."

"I'm sorry about that, sir. I forgot to allow for the kitchen."

"Well, don't let it happen again. That's your bollocking over. Now, let's go. How far are we running tonight?"

He never mentioned it again.

I also refurbished the health club and Sir Jimmy Saville came to advise me. We first met while doing the London Marathon together one year and he came and had lunch at the hotel. Downstairs in the health club, he tried out some of the machines, still smoking one of his trademark cigars which were almost as large as Sir Lew Grade's, and helped me test the equipment that had been brought in as samples for us to look at.

I tried to get the guests involved, too, to see what they actually wanted. Rather than having management saying what would be available, I thought it best to see what the guests would actually prefer. The customer must come first, after all.

PAVAROTTI'S REINFORCED BED

The flamboyant performer Liberace was actually a very unassuming guest and, apart from a regular supply of Champagne, one of his few requests was to have a mini grand piano installed in his room - at his own expense - so that he could practise whenever he felt like it. I was amused to see that he brought his trademark candelabra with him to place on the lid, even though nobody would see it other than him.

When he first came to stay in suite 657 he brought his own valet, but he took a liking to Tom Nutley, a Grosvenor House employee, who eventually became his butler. The personal valet was dispensed with.

Larger-than-life opera singer Luciano Pavarotti was a frequent guest at Grosvenor House whenever he was in London. His actual weight was a closely guarded secret, although it was said to be in the region of 330lb. The bed had to be made bigger and stronger for him, and initially I thought this was because of his huge girth. Later I discovered that it was because he wanted it to be large enough to accommodate four people! To occupy his time at Grosvenor House, prostitutes used to be brought to his room, usually three at a time - hence the larger-than-average bed.

The other prerequisite was a huge fridge so that he could fill it with his own food, especially whole pre-cooked chickens. He booked on a room-only basis, and the rate I gave him was £950 per night for his 10-day stay.

BEST INTENTIONS

Most celebrities that stayed with us did not bring a lover with them, possibly for fear of a scandal. Footballer George Best, however, obviously didn't care what the newspapers wrote about him, as he had a fling at the hotel with Swedish beauty queen Mary Stavin, who was then Miss World.

He stayed in apartment 8, which was rented by a rich South African, and is said to have thrown £15,000 up in the air and made love to her on the bed surrounded by notes. He then called room service for a bottle of Champagne. When the waiter arrived and saw George Best with a naked Miss World on the bed, and money strewn around everywhere, he is reported to have grinned and said: "Where did it all go wrong, George?"

Best later said of those days: "I used to go missing a lot: Miss Canada, Miss UK, Miss World"

Having so many famous guests at Grosvenor House meant that we were plagued by paparazzi trying to get photographs. They tried every ploy to get into the hotel and we would often find them floating around the corridors. You could not miss them, as they always had huge cameras around their necks.

We'd ask them who they were looking for, and they would say Shirley Maclaine, Liza Minnelli, Rita Hayworth or whoever they knew was staying with us at the time.

We would then give them detailed directions, which took them as far away from their intended target as possible.

DEALING WITH DISASTERS

Not all functions ran smoothly, as sometimes there were circumstances completely beyond our control. A horrifying situation was the day a sewage pipe burst into one of the fridges! It contained the puddings that were just about to be served at a banquet.

There was absolutely nothing for it, but to serve the guests a different pudding instead of the one printed on the menu. Not a single guest commented. Out of politeness, the banqueting director approached the organiser and apologised about the switch.

"It was either strawberry parfait or a plate full of shit," he said.

Of all the events that I organised at Grosvenor House, one particularly stands out, as 20 guests suffered from severe food poisoning. A raw egg was found to be the cause and Grosvenor House was fined £25,000 as a result. And the event? It was the Undertakers' Ball. They almost became their own clients.

WARMTH FROM THE WORKFORCE

With so many people working under one roof there was always a great deal of jealousy and backstabbing among the staff, but when I reached the top job I genuinely felt a sense of warmth from the workforce, quite simply because I had started at the bottom.

Unlike many of my predecessors, I had not arrived at Grosvenor House as a manager, and this seemed to avoid an "us and them" situation. Yes, I was the big boss, but at heart I was still considered to be one of them and that was what made all the difference.

Although I was now in my smart navy blue suit, I would still sometimes go down and have my coffee with the maintenance men and the workers below stairs. This allowed me to ask them their opinions and get their feedback as to where improvements could be made. They felt that they could talk to me, which improved staff morale, and they knew that I cared.

Although technically I was only appointed caretaker general manager, I was certain it was just a mere formality that the role would become permanently mine. I probably had more experience of that hotel and the workings of each department than any previous general manager and I loved every minute of it. After 28 years at Grosvenor House I had finally reached the top of the tree.

Rocco Forte called me unexpectedly one day and invited me to go running with him, which had not happened for a long time.

"You've done a great job at Grosvenor House," he said, "but we're going to move you on."

It was a real bolt from the blue. I was only four months into my dream job, which I had waited more than half my life to achieve, and now it was being taken away just as suddenly as it had been given to me. The Forte directors apparently felt that 28 years was far too long for me to remain in the same hotel.

I had no other option than to reluctantly agree. I temporarily returned to being number two again, back in my old job as deputy manager. I was very frustrated and felt that, somewhere along the line, the knives were out. Someone wanted to get rid of me.

MOVING ON

After leaving Grosvenor House, in the years that followed I became general manager of the Berystede Hotel in Ascot, Pennyhill Park in Bagshot, Royal Horseguards in Central London, and finally ended up at Giuseppe Pecorelli's beautiful South Lodge hotel in Horsham.

I spent over four years at South Lodge and loved it. With many challenges and projects, which included overseeing the building of a £5m conference centre, there was certainly no time to be bored.

By 2005, however, I began to get restless again. Not because I was unhappy at South Lodge, but because at the back of my mind I had been mulling over the idea of buying a hotel of my own. One morning I was reading the latest edition of Caterer and Hotelkeeper magazine when I saw a photograph of a hotel for sale in Eastbourne, called the Langham. It was privately owned, had 85 bedrooms, and was on the market for £1.95m. It was in an absolutely fantastic location on the seafront, looking out over Eastbourne pier in one direction, and across the bay towards Hastings in the other.

It soon became clear that, as the hotel was on the market, the staff had lost all interest in their work. Possibly they felt that they would soon be out of a job, so why bother. This put me in a position of strength. I made an offer of £1.8m, and eventually succeeded in buying the hotel for £1.85m. The Langham hotel was mine.

The financial outlay was almost too great to even contemplate. It was a huge leap from being general manager to hotel owner, and yet I felt that the knowledge I had acquired after almost 40 years in the business put me in good stead. I was inspired by Charles Forte's rise from owning one small milk bar to becoming head of the world's largest hotel chain, and that alone encouraged me to press on with my dream.

HOTEL OWNER

On 1 July 2005 my dream came true. Wendy and I signed the contract and we now officially owned the AA three-star Langham hotel in Eastbourne.

Although Champagne corks popped and I grinned from ear to ear in public, my nights were sleepless with worry. I had remortgaged the family home for £400,000, even though it was worth £525,000 at the time; I also remortgaged our flat at Eastbourne marina; I cashed in a pension, put in all my savings, and borrowed £1.3m from the bank.

Ahead lay several years of hard work, refurbishing the hotel to a high standard, and putting a reliable team in place, including a superb head chef, Michael Titherington.

I decided to continue the approach I had taken at South Lodge and began to develop the non-resident trade. I started a ladies' lunch club in 2006 and by the third event the dining room was full and I had to start a waiting list.

Many of the ladies from the local community came back for lunches and dinners at other times, booked their children's weddings at the hotel, and used it as a venue for a variety of functions, even just calling in with their friends for morning coffee or afternoon tea on a regular basis.

In 2009 I began a gentlemen's lunch club, so that husbands did not feel left out. I started hosting a pudding club and literary lunches, and we put on regular chef demonstrations, which are a great asset.

Recently I returned to Grosvenor House for a lunch, back to where my career began as a washer-upper 43 years ago. It was odd, sitting on the other side of the fence, being served in the rooms where I had once served. The doorman still knew me by name, and as he hailed a taxi for us when we departed, asked:

"Who do you work for now, Mr Kirby?"

"Oh, I've bought my own hotel," I answered and, as the car swept out of the forecourt and into Park Lane, it suddenly hit me for the first time just how far I had really travelled.

HOW TO KEEP GUESTS COMING BACK

Five-star hotels have to continually come up with new ideas to make the guests' stay special. We got to know regular guests' birthdays, anniversaries, favourite food and drink, so we could add a personal touch. For example, a whisky drinker would be given a complimentary bottle of whisky in their room rather than Champagne. If we knew that someone enjoyed gardening, then a selection of gardening magazines would be placed in their room.

We kept record cards for each of our regular guests and, as staff discovered something about them, it would be added to the card. Lists of likes and dislikes were eventually transferred to computer, so that we had a personal history of our visitors and corporate clients.

Each month, staff were awarded a bonus, depending upon how much information they had discovered. This gave them an incentive and put us ahead of our rivals.

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